A Fine Farewell
Tully Bevilaqua isn't sure how to explain it. She was too short and not athletic enough to play in the WNBA in 1998. She's too old to play in 2012. But here she is, in her 14th season, less than two weeks from turning 40, coming off the bench to provide defensive hustle and spark for the Silver Stars.
She's leaving the game after this season, a portrait of perseverance and grit, a marvel with a most unusual career arc. Cut 12 games into her first WNBA season at age 25, Bevilaqua didn't get a second chance in the league until she was 28, didn't make her first All-WNBA Defensive Team until she was 33, didn't make her first Olympic team until 36.
The older she got, the more her game improved. Who gets ignored in the WNBA Draft, struggles year after year and peaks as a star defender in their 30s?
"Why it's worked out that way, I have no idea," Bevilaqua says. "I'm like a bottle of fine wine, aren't I?"
She is a rarity: one of four players in WNBA history with more than 800 career assists and 500 steals. Only 41-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin of Minnesota is older.
When this final season ends -- after more than 450 games and 1900 points -- Bevilaqua will retire to life in -- where else? -- a gym. Only this time she'll be a fitness instructor, personal trainer and youth basketball coach in Indianapolis.
"It's bittersweet," she says of her last season. "This is what I've been doing for 20-odd years. You lose people who have been in your life. But at the same time I'm super excited."
Her improbable WNBA journey began in a small agricultural community in Western Australia. The city of Merredin -- with a population of less than 3,000 -- is known for wheat, a railway water tower and its proximity to the capital city of Perth (pop. 1.7 million), three hours to the west.
Merredin has produced prominent politicians, artists and athletes, but no basketball players of note until Bevilaqua. She grew up with rough-and-tumble brothers, playing Australian rules football, cricket, soccer and hoops. "I was a real tomboy," she says.
While many of her WNBA contemporaries were playing year-round ball in their youth, Bevilaqua
plunged headlong into whatever game broke out. She tackled boys, wrestled for balls, rolled in grass and dirt fields. It wasn't until she turned 17 and moved to Perth, that she began to focus on basketball.
In one respect, Bevilaqua's late arrival to the year-round game put her behind a learning curve. In another respect, she believes, it extended her career. "Playing a lot of sports with my brothers gave me a toughness that made me stand out," she says. "When I was trying out for the WNBA, I wasn't scared to dive on the floor and get loose balls. It came naturally to me. When you are only 5-5 and playing against people who are much bigger, it definitely helped."
She turned pro in 1991, joining the Perth Lynx of the Women's National Basketball League in Australia, and developed steadily at the point. In her sixth season, she led the Lynx in assists. After her eighth season, Bevilaqua received a call at 1 a.m. from her agent, who'd sent tapes to WNBA teams. Five hours later, she was on a plane to the U.S. to play with a club beset with injured guards, the Cleveland Rockers. "Right place, right time," Bevilaqua says. "Pure luck."
The gig ended shortly. Bevilaqua continued playing with the Lynx, caught another break in 2000, played with the Portland Fire for three seasons, moved to the Seattle Storm, and won a WNBA championship in 2004 at 32.
Then her career ignited. The following season in Indiana, Bevilaqua made the first of six consecutive All-WNBA Defensive Teams. In the 2006 WNBA off season, she led the Canberra Capitals to the first of two consecutive WNBL titles and won the league's Good Hands Award. In 2008, she made her first Olympic team. The Aussies won Silver.
At age 39, Bevilaqua looks golden. "One of the reasons for my success is I understood my role on every team," she says. "I'm not a flashy player. I'm not athletically gifted. I play to my strengths."
Defense. Hustle. Intelligence. The list goes on. "Tully is an example of several great qualities that sports can help illustrate," says Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes. "One, her persistence is an incredible example to young athletes, not only on the court, but in her career as a professional basketball player. Secondly, she has carved out a unique role that has helped all WNBA teams she has been with. Lastly, she has been a leader and mentor to younger players."
Long ago, in another world, Bevilaqua never imagined this. She has found lasting success in the WNBA and soon retires with a world of taller players looking up to her.